Nelson Mandela recently celebrated his 90th birthday. A huge rock concert was held in London’s Hyde Park as a fundraiser for Mandela’s AIDS charity.
But the tragedy of South Africa’s AIDS epidemic could have been averted by Mandela.
We quote from the 4-hour PBS documentary, The Age of AIDS.
NARRATOR: As in the West, gay activists were among the first to warn that aids was coming.
EDWIN CAMERON, AIDS Law Project: I got infected, as thousands, hundreds of thousands of comparable gay men in Sydney and San Francisco and elsewhere. But it was already plain at that stage that there was a heterosexual African epidemic, which was going to surpass the epidemic amongst people like myself.
ZACKIE ACHMAT: We started an HIV prevention program, trying to speak to people about it, trying to say to people to use condoms, and so on.
NARRATOR: In the black townships, the activists met resistance.
MANDLA MAJOLO: People from outside come into your community, telling you how to behave, especially if they are whites and you’re black, and you can easily look at it as if they think that you are irresponsible sexually. And once you reach that feeling, you start to build walls.
NARRATOR:In pockets across the nation, like rural KwaZulu-Natal, people began to die from AIDS. Increasingly, they were women, infected by their husbands and lovers who’d worked in the mines.
D.E. NDWANDWE, Nurse, KwaZulu-Natal: We used to get more males than females, but eventually, there was a change and we got more female patients than males, you know, such a change that we actually had to change the accommodation at some stage, use the people who worked for females and use the other ward for males.
NARRATOR:For four years after Mandela’s release, the apartheid leaders and the ANC were consumed with the transfer of power. In that political vacuum, an opportunity to stem the epidemic was slipping away.
SALIM ABDOOL KARIM, M.D., University of KwaZulu-Natal: In a way, the complex political transition, the lack of credibility of the apartheid government at that time, which was disintegrating, in effect, and the new government was yet to be installed- and the new government had all kinds of challenges, not least HIV.
NARRATOR: In poor, crowded townships like Soweto, the epidemic accelerated. doctors at the nation’s largest hospital were soon overwhelmed.
GLENDA GRAY, M.D., Baragwanath Hospital, Soweto: It was just hemorrhaging. And we just watched this- this thing explode in our face.
NARRATOR: Babies were being infected by their mothers through childbirth and breast feeding.
Dr. GLENDA GRAY:As HIV became more frequent and more commonplace in children, and as they needed more and more care, the ICUs in the country also made decisions not to admit children with HIV into their ICUs because it was terminal, and we needed to keep the beds open for children who had better prognosis. HIV became the new apartheid in South Africa. You know, we discriminated not on race anymore, but on HIV status.
Nurses were burnt out. Doctors didn’t care, as well, you know? “Why should I care when the government doesn’t care?”
NARRATOR: In May 1994, when Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s president, he saw his job as reconciliation, holding his fractured nation together. Activists hoped he would also make time for AIDS.
EDWIN CAMERON:At the time I chaired a national convention on AIDS, my co-chair and I made every effort we could to get an audience with President Mandela, and we didn’t succeed. We got an audience instead with Deputy President de Klerk, and Deputy President Mbeki joined the meeting.
NARRATOR:Mandela delegated AIDS to his deputy, Thabo Mbeki
Mbeki, Mandela’s eventual successor and SA’s current leader, became convinced that HIV was not the cause of AIDS and thwarted efforts to deal with the crisis.
In the US, Senator Jesse Helms was blocking efforts to send aid to Africa, primarily on moral grounds. Then he got a visit from singer, Bono. Billy Graham’s son, Franklin, was also advocating help for Africa.
Then Bush stepped in, doing what Bill Clinton never did: act.
NARRATOR: Bono’s activism was backed by his own Christian faith. Franklin Graham took notice.
Rev. FRANKLIN GRAHAM: Bono has a pretty significant level of biblical understanding. He’s read the Bible. Not once, but I think he’s read it many times.
BONO: I was offended to discover that the religiosity of this country was not available to the AIDS emergency, so I asked to meet as many church leaders as I could and used examples from the Scriptures. You know, “Isn’t this the leprosy of the age,” I argued. “Isn’t this what,” you know, “the Christ spent his time with?” And yet the church now is walking across the road and looking the other way.
NARRATOR: With Franklin Graham’s support, Bono came to Washington to meet Jesse Helms.
BONO: Jesse Helms is a tough guy, but he’s also rigorous, from his point of view. So you know, Christ only speaks of judgment once, and oddly enough, it’s in regard to the poor. I think it’s Matthew 23. It’s the famous lines, “I was naked and you clothed me. I was a prisoner and you visited me.’ And then they say to Christ, “What are you talking about? You weren’t.” “I was sick and you came to me.” And he says, “No, no, I wasn’t. But as much as you do this to the least of these, you do it unto me.” And that’s a very powerful piece of Scripture.
And he was very moved. Even emotionally, he kind of welled up. And as I was leaving the room, he said – big Southern- big, tall, Southern old boy, you know, just this amazing character- he said, “I want to give you a blessing.” And he put his arms around me and then he gave me this blessing. And I take such- I take blessings pretty seriously. And I went out and of course told the assembled press what had happened, and they couldn’t believe it.
I’m very humbled. I’m having my world turned upside down, and I’m surprised that people should be so generous in letting an obvious outsider in.
Sen. JESSE HELMS: You’ll never be an outsider. You’ll always be a friend.
Rev. FRANKLIN GRAHAM: He respected what Bono was telling him, and Senator Helms changed his position to where opposing funding for HIV/AIDS, he became an advocate for funding.
Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: Thank you all. Bono, I appreciate your heart. Let me tell you what an influence you’ve had. Dick Cheney walked in the Oval Office, he said, “Jesse Helms wants us to listen to Bono’s ideas.” That’s pretty-
BONO: And he was very well informed about it. I was surprised that he knew- you know, he knew as much as he did. And to be fair to President Bush, he really responded, and he responded in a way that no one could ever have imagined.
NARRATOR: Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top scientist from the NIH, was summoned to the White House. They wanted a plan on AIDS.
Dr. ANTHONY FAUCI: It was driven by the president. He said he wanted it to be feasible, he wanted it to be bold, and he wanted it to be accountable.
NARRATOR: Bush was also getting advice from Franklin Graham, one of his spiritual advisers.
Rev. FRANKLIN GRAHAM: I tried to encourage him to- first of all, in most of Africa, not only do you have a church, but there are church-related hospitals. And we need to enlist these churches in this fight against HIV/AIDS. And we don’t need to be pouring this money into some of these governments, who are going to squander the money.
NARRATOR: A plan emerged. It would draw on both religious and government health services already in place.
Dr. ANTHONY FAUCI: Therapy prevention care for HIV can really work under these circumstances, if you do it the African way. Don’t parachute in your own preconceived notion about how things can be done, do it the way the Africans feel that they can do it.
The White House staff said, “We believe you, Tony, but you’re a white American who works for the federal government. We want to hear, is this thing feasible from people who are in the trenches.”
NARRATOR: Fauci reached out to Uganda’s leading AIDS specialist to convince the White House staff.
PETER MUGYENYI, M.D., Joint Clinical Research Ctr.: They were very skeptical that infrastructure would not support anti-retroviral therapy on the African continent. They even went to some extremes of saying that the continent do not even have clean water.
NARRATOR: In January 2003, the plan was still behind closed doors. With a looming war in Iraq, there were worries about the White House’s priorities.
BONO: I said that to President Bush. You know, I said, “Look, paint them red, white and blue, if you want, but these drugs are the best advertisement you’re going to get right now, and that might be important right now.” And so, you know, above the moral imperatives comes the political imperative to some people. So fine, whatever brings you to the party.
NARRATOR: As the president arrived for his State of the Union speech, everyone expected him to issue an ultimatum to Saddam Hussein. They were not prepared for what came first.
Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: Today, on the continent of Africa, nearly 30 million people have the AIDS virus, yet across that continent, only 50,000 AIDS victims – only 50,000 – are receiving the medicine they need. I ask the Congress to commit $15 billion over the next five years, including nearly $10 billion in new money, to turn the tide against AIDS in the most afflicted nations of Africa and the Caribbean.
Dr. PETER MUGYENYI: That sounded like melodious music. From there onwards, things would never be the same. And that was victory for the people who were suffering and who were now going to have hope.
The entire documentary is online in multiple video formats.